License to Ill
Before 1985, the Beastie Boys, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz, were just three Jewish kids from Manhattan in a hard core punk band. In 1984, they signed on to Def Jam records which their producer, Rick Rubin, ran out of his dorm room. While opening for Madonna’s The Virgin Tour in 1985, they noticed that the audience responded very favorably to the DJ and rap portions of their set so they began experimenting with combining these different elements into their songs.
On 15 November 1986, the Beastie Boys released their genre bending Hip Hop album License to Ill. The way paved the year before by Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”, the Beastie Boys took the concept a step further with all original songs, in both recording and theme. While most white hip hop artists of the 1980s attempted to imitate black artists, the Beastie Boys just rapped in “their unique and irreverent style” about what they knew: themselves, girls, drugs, booze, partying, petty crime, and Rock and Roll.
What Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry did for Rock and Roll, the Miracles and the Temptations did for Motown, and Donna Summers and the Bee Gees did for Disco, the Beastie Boys brought Hip-Hop to an entirely new audience. Public Enemy’s Chuck D called them, “the Jackie Robinson of Hip-Hop”, and the Rolling Stone reviewed their album under the now famous headline, “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece”.
License to Ill would go Triple Platinum by the end of the year. It became the highest selling rap album of the 80s and the first to reach #1 on the pop charts. Hip hop went mainstream and record sales for artists like Salt and Pepa, Grandmaster Flash, Ice T, and Stetasonic exploded. (And it seemed MTV played “Fight for your Right” every fourth set… )
If you are reading this and were alive in the 80s you probably received License to Ill from a record club in December 1986. There isn’t a bad song on the entire album and its one of the few I can put on and listen straight through.
No Sleep til… Brooooooklyn! (You know you just sang, “Da Na..Da Daaaa” there.)
1966 was the Year of LSD in Rock and Roll. The Byrds released “8 Miles High” earlier in the year heralding the Age of Psychedelia, and John Lennon one upped them with “Tomorrow Never Knows” just after. The Beatles joined in and followed it up with their album “Revolver”. They were so whacked out Ringo doesn’t remember recording “Eleanor Rigby” (probably for the best), and they literally phoned in their parts to the animated movie Yellow Submarine (not the origin of the phrase, but probably the first actual use in filming). The Beach Boys also took up John Lennon’s psychedelic gauntlet. But the Beach Boys were far from the fresh faced bubble gum surfers they were a few years earlier and were themselves deep into drugs. Lead singer and song writer Brian Wilson, easily the heart and soul of the band, knew the end was near: like the Beatles, the individual Beach Boys rarely spent time in the studio together and relied on session musicians for recording.
Wilson knew this would be the last opportunity for the Beach Boys to release a great album, and used the drug fueled challenge to explore some musical avenues he couldn’t convince anyone to get on board with earlier. With legendary producer Phil Specter and an army of session artists, he wrote, produced, and recorded the album “Pet Sounds” over four months. The other members of the band, his two brothers, cousin and childhood friend, only came in to record their singing parts (for all their failings, the Beach Boys are unequaled vocally). From the greatest opening song on an album ever, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to Wilson’s first solo hit, “Caroline, No”, Pet Sounds, the first concept album, is Wilson’s magnum opus, and duly earned its rightful place as #2 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums.
And this despite leaving his best song off the album.
Brian Wilson took another four months and an unheard $70,000 to perfect his greatest creation, “Good Vibes”, which he was eventually convinced to change to “Good Vibrations” late in recording. The final 3:37 minute song was edited/mixed over nine laborious days from 3 ½ hours of finished recorded music. Good Vibrations was released on 10 October 1966 and would earn the Beach Boys an instant Emmy, bring Psychedelic Rock mainstream, give the burgeoning antiwar counterculture its anthem, and launch the sub-genre of Progressive Rock. Finally, it convinced the Beatles to forego the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival and that the future of music was not in live performance but increasing complexity in the studio. They started to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (the first pop album and #1 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums) less than two weeks later.
Admit it: you’re singing “Good Goood Good, Good Vib…” right now.
On the most hallowed day of 5 July 1946, the bikini was modeled for the first time at a popular Parisian swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor (honoring a Napoleonic Marshal of France). The bikini itself was named after the recent nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. It was designed by Louis Reard, a French automobile and mechanical engineer who also ran his mother’s lingerie shop. Reard couldn’t find a fashion model to debut the risqué swimwear, so he hired Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the nearby Casino de Paris. Although two piece swimsuits appeared before, Reard’s design was the first to expose the hips and navel. While modeling the bikini, Bernardini held the tiny box the bikini was sold in. When asked what separated his design from others, Reard said, “a true bikini will fit through a wedding ring” (both literally and metaphorically).
Reard’s bikini was popular in the fashion circles, but the mainstream public didn’t really catch on until a divinely inspired and epic triumvirate of events occurred in the early 1960s. First, singer Billy Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” hit #1 on 8 August 1960, which set the stage from provocative to fun. Next, Frankie Avalon and everyone’s favorite mousketeer, Annette Funicello, got all growed up and starred in the hit movie, Beach Party: an instant hit with the kids. And finally, Raquel Welch appeared in the movie One Million Years BC in 1966 in the original furkini, and every straight male under 30 in America had a poster of her up on their bedroom wall. Like beer (ever notice most great things in life start “b”, just sayin’) the bikini is proof that Baby Jesus loves us and wants us to be happy.
God Bless America! (and France I guess… and Italy, whatever…)
In 1967, Rock and Roll irreversibly split – fans of the live sound at the Monterrey Pop Festival (where the Beatles couldn’t play) would go on to form hard rock and heavy metal, and fans of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album (which sounds like shit live) formed pop. By the early 70s, safe pop rock had taken over the radio airwaves. The meandering sound of the time was technically complex, and in many ways artistically brilliant, but it had a giant flaw: You couldn’t dance to it.
Four middle class kids from Queens, New York wanted to change that. They wanted to bring back the “Rock and Roll Dance Party”. They were fans of the minimalist garage rock style of the bands that flourished in the underground night clubs of New York at the time, such as the Dictators, New York Dolls, and the Stooges. The four “brothers” formed a band and each adopted the last name “Ramone”. They stripped songs down to their most primal, and built them back up with three chords and two minutes of solid sound. The Ramones swept the club scene of New York in 1975 performing covers of 50’s and 60’s songs, rebooted in their own unique way.
In January 1976, they spent $6400 and two weeks recording their eponymous debut album. On 23 April 1976, the album was released and on the cover was the now iconic shot of the four band members leaning against a wall. Anyone who was anyone had to have that shot of their band. That single shot and simple sound convinced thousands of kids that they too could be rock and roll stars. Hundreds of new bands on both sides of the Atlantic began to emulate their simple, near sololess sound. The Ramones were the perfect combination of 50s energy, 60s teenage angst (rooted in the perception that they missed out on their older brother’s and sister’s fun in the “Summer of Love”) and 70s speed. Critics hated the album, and radio stations refused to play it.
Fuck’em: Punk was born.
On 19 September, 1960, Chubby Checker and The Fat Boys premiered their single, The Twist, on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. With its easy dance and catchy tune, it went straight to Number One, and The Twist rescued Rock and Roll.
By the late fifties, the wild, wailing, and over the top Rock and Roll of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis gave way to the focus grouped, formulaic, starry eyed ballads of teen pop idols like Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson and Neil Sedaka. Vocal harmonies ruled the airwaves, whether the girl group doo-wops, the barbershop sounds of the swooners, or the early gospel inspired Motown acts. The problem was you can’t dance to harmonies. When Elvis Left the Building (for the Army) in 1957, and Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash (“The Day the Music Died”) in 1959, everyone assumed Rock was dead.
The Twist was an atomic explosion across the music scene unlike any seen before or since. Even the Charleston of the 1920s and the Jitterbug of the 30s can’t compare to the Twist mania that shook the world between 1960 and 1963. In the space of two minutes and thirty nine seconds, Rock and Roll stopped being about dreamy sequences of wooing your girl at the ice cream parlor, and set it back on the path to its roots in dancing, sweat, booze, sex, drugs, and live music. (You know you almost said “rock and roll” right there.)
In 1974, the Soviet backed Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, more commonly known as “The Derg”, overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie establishing Ethiopia as a Marxist-Leninist Communist state on the Horn of Africa. The coup and subsequent heavy handed socialist policies expanded the Ethiopian Civil War from just Eritean separatists to include groups of separatists from across the country, including Tigrayan, Amhara and Oromo peoples, among many others. In 1983, the constant warfare, Ethiopian Red Terror (exactly what it sounds like), land redistribution, forced migration, corruption, deliberate starvation, and a drought led to a widespread famine across Ethiopia. Between 1983 and 1985, the famine and human rights abuses killed 1.2 million Ethiopians, nearly 500,000 refugees fled the country, and 2.5 million people were internally displaced.
In November 1984, a BBC news documentary on the Ethiopian famine shocked the world. The international community leapt to respond, but none so much as the British and American music industries. Irish musician Robert Geldof formed the super group “Band-Aid” who raised funds for the victims. Band-Aid’s single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” raised nearly $10 million, despite being culturally inappropriate for the predominantly Christian country of Ethiopia. In March 1985, American super group “USA for Africa” released “We Are the World” raising further funds for Ethiopia.
The funds by the charity singles were still well below what international organizations thought was needed to combat the famine. Along with Geldof, Scottish musician Midge Ure organized a day of worldwide benefit concerts, billed a “global jukebox”, that would raise awareness and funds for Ethiopia. On 13 July 1985 simultaneous concerts were held in Austria, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United States, West Germany, and Yugoslavia. The two largest benefit concerts, dubbed “Live Aid”, were simultaneous showings at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK stadium in Philadelphia on 13 July 1985.
Both concerts were seen at each stadium on huge screens via near real time satellite transmission. According to the organizers, Live Aid showed that “humanitarian concern is now at the center of foreign policy”, and a new era of humanitarian cooperation would replace the Cold War. The line ups for both Live Aid concerts consisted of the “Who’s who” of Rock and Roll Aristocracy. At Wembley stadium, U2, David Bowie, Queen, the Who, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, George Michael, and Dire Straits headlined. In America, the JFK Live Aid concert was dubbed, “This Generation’s Woodstock”. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, the Beach Boys, Phil Collins, Brian Adams, Judas Priest, Simple Minds, Eric Clapton, and Duran Duran, among others, played twenty minutes sets. The JFK Live Aid concert even included the first on stage performance by Led Zeppelin since the death of their drummer, John Bonham in 1980 (Phil Collins drummed in his stead at the Live Aid concert). 160,000 people attended the concerts live. The combined Live Aid televised broadcast had an estimated 1.9 billion (with a “b”) viewers. 40% of the world’s population tuned in.
The Live Aid concerts are mostly remembered today for their technical difficulties, both on and off stage. Led Zeppelin’s songs sounded terrible. The group hadn’t rehearsed, Robert Plant sounded like shit, Jimmy Page’s guitar was not tuned, and Phil Collins didn’t know the songs. Tina Turner had wardrobe malfunction which almost got the plug pulled on the whole thing by the FCC. Bryan Adams couldn’t be heard in London due to a buzzing sound. And Paul McCartney’s version of Let It Be was silent for the first two minutes. Donations to Live Aid for the first seven hours amounted to a paltry $1.7 million, considering the star power assembled in support. The numbers went up considerably after Geldof got on the BBC radio and shouted, “Give us your focking money!.” Despite the problems, Live Aid raised at least $127,000,000 for the victims of the Ethiopian famine.
That $127,000,000 brought nothing but greater levels of death and destruction to Ethiopia.
The victims of the Ethiopian famine saw little if any of that money, and even the money raised previously by the charity singles, “Do they Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World”. Geldof ignored warnings from the NGO (non governmental organization) Doctors Without Borders, that the aid money was being funneled by the Ethiopian government for nefarious purposes. Geldof worked with Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam personally, and most of the Live Aid money went to fund arms and military equipment purchases from the Soviet Union. Geldof was instrumental in getting Doctors Without Borders expelled from Ethiopia, removing medical care for countless Ethiopians. As a response, future funds from sales of the Live Aid recordings went to several NGOs instead of the Ethiopian government. The NGOs turned out to be front organizations for the various rebel movements in the country. After the allegations of Live Aid mismanagement and corruption proved true, many artists admitted they were shamed and browbeaten by Geldoff to perform at the charity concerts.
Live Aid made a lot of rich people feel good about themselves, but Live Aid did little if anything good for the Ethiopian people. Ethiopia would have been much better off without Live Aid. Live Aid can accurately be described as having funded all sides of the Ethiopian Civil War. Live Aid funds directly resulted in escalations to the Ethiopian Civil War, and its donations tied directly to human rights abuses and war crimes. The Live Aid funded Ethiopian Civil War spilled over into neighboring Somalia and further destabilized that country, resulting in United Nations’ intervention in 1992. The Ethiopian Civil War continued until 1991 when Soviet backing for the Derg regime and its successor, The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, ended. That year, Eritea won its independence, and Ethiopia transitioned to a US backed ethnic federation.
There is no question about the damage Live Aid’s funds did to the people and stability of the Horn of Africa. The only question is whether the Live Aid organizers were deliberately funding the Derg regime, or were willfully ignorant to the realities of the Ethiopian Civil War.
In either case, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Cool concerts though, I guess.
Little Richard and Tutti Frutti
In 1951, Alan Freed’s Imaginary Bandstand began playing rhythm and blues and ruled the nighttime air waves, causing DJ’s across the country to follow suit. By 1954, these rhythm and blues songs spawned a new music genre called “rock and roll” after the African American euphemism for sex. In March 1955, Bill Haley and his Comets’ song, “Rock Around the Clock”, appeared in the movie Blackboard Jungle, and Rock and Roll finally broke onto the music charts.
But there was still a problem with Rock and Roll in 1954 and most of 1955: Though kids of all races listened to Rock and Roll performers of all races on the radio, kids rarely saw the performers. Most never knew if they were white, black, or Hispanic. When the kids did go to live shows, they were generally of the same race as the performers. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” was the perfect example, released in May 1955, white kids loved it, but white kids that went to Chuck Berry concerts, went there thinking he was white.
Richard Wayne Penniman changed that.
“Little Richard” as he was known to his friends, was inspired by Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 (arguably the first Rock and Roll song) in 1951 to get into the music business. For the next three years he struggled charting as a rhythm and blues songwriter, pianist, and singer, despite his larger than life stage presence. In 1954 he went back to his hometown of Macon, Georgia, disillusioned with the music industry, and washed dishes in the diner at the local Greyhound station. He formed a new band, which played on the weekends, and was convinced by a friend to send a demo to someone he knew at Specialty Records, based in Los Angeles. In summer of 1955, as Rock Around the Clock was on every radio, he got a call and was told to meet producer “Bumps” Blackwell at their studio in New Orleans. Specialty Records wanted a Fats Domino, who was the first R&B artist to successfully bring black music to a white audience.
On the humid and miserable afternoon of 14 September 1955, Little Richard was having a tough recording session. Nothing was working out. Out of frustration, he and Blackwell went next door to (I Shit You Not) The Dew Drop Inn, for a drink or two. Within minutes, Little Richard was playing on the bar’s piano and a crowd began to form. He got a bit wild and gave an impromptu concert right there. His music was missing a bit without his backup band, so he simulated the drum intro to his new song with the now iconic “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!”
With just 15 minutes left in the session, he and Bumps raced back next door and recorded Tutti Frutti in just one take. That single take is the same version you hear today. Tutti Fruiti is a song about a large cylindrical spaceship making the difficult and uncomfortable journey to the seventh planet from the sun. He knew he had a hit, but because of the risqué material, Little Richard tried it out live before releasing it. In October 1955, he did a series of shows that got bigger and bigger, and the centerpiece was his rendition of Tutti Frutti. The kids went wild, both black and white. Little Richard was the first live black Rock and Roll act to crossover to white kids. Live Rock and Roll, music that didn’t care about the color of your skin, was born.
When Pennimen and Blackwell finally felt comfortable releasing the material in November, Tutti Frutti shot straight to number 2 on the charts, and electrified Little Richard’s career. Tutti Frutti was the first mainstream black American Rock and Roll hit to cross the ocean and chart in the UK. Tutti Frutti and Little Richard’s wild antics on stage became the template for the new genre of music about to take the world by storm: Rock and Roll. Tutti Frutti changed the music industry, and every band and producer wanted their concerts to be like Little Richard’s. The crossover was almost complete. The music industry finally had a black act that appealed to white kids live, now they just needed a white act that appealed to black kids. They found him later that autumn in Bill Halley’s opener, Elvis Presley, a fan of Little Richard. Also, that December, after hearing Little Richard and Tutti Frutti, country singer Carl Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” essentially creating the devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly. Elvis Presley and Rockabilly would eventually bring the white girls en masse to the concerts and record stores. And where the girls went the bots followed. The beginning of the Golden Age of Rock and Roll was but months away.
Little Richard changed live rhythm and blues forever, and introduced it to a brand new audience. Little Richard’s concerts, where white and black kids mixed and danced to a new form of music, were ten years ahead of the Civil Rights Movement.
Little Richard broke down barriers thought incontestable just the spring before. He didn’t care about skin color, he cared about the fans. We should all be more like Little Richard.
RIP Richard Wayne Penniman
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
In the mid-1960s, the “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age and like all teenagers and early 20-somethings, they didn’t understand their parents and the greater world around them. They grew up in the fifties which was an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity in the Western world. This was particularly true in the US which was spared the worst of the death and devastation caused by the Second World War. They didn’t grow up during the Great Depression, and they didn’t have to make the extraordinary sacrifices required by the Second World War. So unlike their parents they were not satisfied (see what I did there) with the orderly two bedroom, one car, 2.5 kids, baseball diamond, soda shop, 9-5 existence that their “square” parents were perfectly OK with. Teenagers found an outlet for their rebelliousness in Rock and Roll.
The Rolling Stones was a blues rock band from London who had been riding the British Invasion wave in America behind the Beatles, the Animals, and the Kinks, among others. The Stones’ problem was that most of their songs were old blues tunes sped up and given their own distinctive twist. Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham recognized singer Mick Jagger’s and lead guitarist Keith Richard’s untapped songwriting talent and creativity, but they were getting too comfortable with the status quo. In the summer of 1964, Oldham realized they were going to run out of old blues covers, and he needed to force the band to write their own music. So he locked them up in a hotel room, and wouldn’t let them out until they wrote a song. In that tiny, hot, and sweaty hotel room, Jagger and Richards wrote “As Time Goes By”. Oldham, a Casablanca fan, had them change the name to “As Tears Go By”. Since it was a ballad, something the Stones weren’t known for, Oldham had their friend Marianne Faithful record it and it peaked at No 6 on the UK charts. The Jagger/Richards songwriting duo had its first of many hits.
However, by early 1965 the Rolling Stones still hadn’t had an international breakout hit, despite the genius of the Jagger/Richards songwriting team. In May, they were on their third North American tour and their popularity was waning. It looked like the Stones were just another British Invasion band riding on the Beatles’ coattails, just another flash in the pan.
After a rowdy concert in Clearwater, Florida on 5 May 1965, Richards climbed into his hotel room bed. When he woke up the next morning, he noticed that his acoustic guitar was on the floor, and the tape recorder that he kept next to his bed, so he could immediately capture inspiration, was full. He replayed the recording, and it contained two minutes of a guitar riff and 43 minutes of his snoring. He didn’t remember playing the riff.
After some shopping, Richards took the recording to Jagger’s room, and he thought the riff would be great for some horns. Jagger and Richards spent the rest of the day writing a song around the riff. Jagger wrote lyrics poolside. While shopping, Richards had bought a Gibson Fuzzbox, which made an electric guitar sound vaguely like a saxophone. Richards incorporated the Fuzzbox in place of the horns. Later that day they got the band together with Richards playing the opening riff with the Gibson Fuzzbox in place of a saxophone. An acoustic guitar part for him was to be added later. Oldham heard the song, which Jagger named “Satisfaction”, and thought they were on to something. Ever one to strike while the iron was hot, Oldham booked flights to Chicago for their upcoming break in touring.
On 10 May 1965, at the famous Chess Records, the Rolling Stones recorded Satisfaction with Richards still playing the saxophone parts with the Gibson Fuzzbox. The band liked the version, but Oldham loved it. He demanded they release it immediately, as is. Jagger and Richards, as the writers, had the final say and declined: Jagger still wanted horns and Richards wanted an acoustic version more in line with what he found on the tape player. Oldham convinced them that since they were in America, everyone in the room should put it to a vote. Jagger and Richards reluctantly agreed and both voted “Nay”. The rest of the band, Oldham, and the sound engineer all voted “Aye”. Jagger and Richards lost, but stood by their promise. Satisfaction was to be released as soon as possible in its then current form.
Two days later, at Richard’s request, the Rolling Stones re-recorded Satisfaction in California using a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone in place of the Gibson Fuzzbox. But by then there was no more talk of acoustic versions or horns.
On 6 June 1965, the Rolling Stones released “Satisfaction” as a single. It shot straight to the top of the charts, and stayed in the top ten an unprecedented three months. The version recorded on 12 May 1965 is the one we know today.
The Stones’ Satisfaction, with its teenage angst, sexual innuendo, and dripping sarcasm for their parents’ world, became the theme song for a generation. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction touched the soul of discontented people everywhere. Satisfaction is the total package: you can sing it, you can drink to it, you can yell it, you can rock out to it, you can protest to it, you can cover it, and you can dance to it. Keith Richard’s opening riff is instantly recognizable to all of humanity. It is the greatest rock and roll song ever and one of the songs I want played on continuous loop at my wake.
F**k the Man. \m/
Since the 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation had a lock on the radio airwaves in Great Britain. In the early 1960s, the cultural Marxists at the BBC outlawed Rock and Roll. In 1964, club owner and recording producer Ronan O’Rahilly was sick of the BBC refusing to play his music, so he created his own radio station. He couldn’t set it up in Great Britain because of the BBC’s state run monopoly. But there was nothing preventing him from broadcasting from international waters. O’Rahilly hired a boat, crew, and DJs. He broadcast Rock and Roll from the North Sea, always staying three miles from land and outside the jurisdiction of Her Majesty. He named his pirate radio station “Radio Caroline” after JFK’s precocious young daughter.
Ronan O’Rahilly’s Radio Caroline broadcast Rock and Roll to the culturally starved masses of the British Isles. The British Invasion brought Rock and Roll back to America, and Radio Caroline brought the British Invasion back to Britain. Though Radio Caroline was illegal to listen to, by 1965 Radio Caroline had higher ratings than all of the BBC radio stations combined. At the behest of the BBC, the British government tried to scramble O’Rahilly’s signal, steal his transmitter, arrest his DJs, sink his ship, and even seriously considered having him assassinated. But you can’t stop the signal.
In 1967, Parliament passed the “Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act” which made it illegal for any British “citizen” to do business with Radio Caroline, which ended Radio Caroline’s ad revenue. Radio Caroline survived, but the act forced the BBC to create BBC Radio 1, its popular music station, to placate demand, lest the British have another revolution.
RIP Ronan O’Rahilly \m/
The Day the Music Died
On 5 June 1956, the King was Born when Elvis shocked the world with his wild hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times called him “a bore in a burlesque show”, and The New York Daily News called him “Elvis the Pelvis” but fuck the squares: the girls loved him, and the boys wanted to be him. When the country woke up on the 6th, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Perry Como were surprised to find out they were no longer the music stars they were when they went to bed. Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party went daytime national and a Philadelphia’s small afternoon music show, American Bandstand, got a new teenage host, Dick Clark, and within a month it went national. Small regional acts were soon playing across the country. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and a new Vanguard of Cool had unfettered access to the American soul.
For the next 20 glorious months, there was no “White Music” and there was no “Black Music”, there was only Rock and Roll. It and in particular its swing dancing, wild, devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly, dominated the American consciousness.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Jerry Lee Lewis was a national pariah after marrying his 13 year old cousin in December 1957. Elvis was drafted in March 1958. Also that year, Alan Freed, and just about every DJ in America, was caught up in the “Payola scandal” of accepting bribes for record plays. Little Richard left the music industry to pursue a life of ministry in 1958, and also that year Gene Vincent was shut down after the IRS forced him to sell everything to pay his taxes. Johnny Cash had a messy divorce from the Sun Music and started recording gospel music. His friend Carl Perkins left soon thereafter.
Not all was lost, in late 1958, four of the biggest names in Rock and Roll toured together across the Midwest. Buddy Holly was a founding member of Rock and Roll and his bespeckled appearance gave heart to millions of teenagers that they too could get laid if they played the guitar. Dion spoke straight to audiences’ needs with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, was the face of Rockabilly with his anthem “Chantilly Lace”. And finally Californian Ritchie Valens, whose Spanish language “La Bamba” converted entire demographics to Rock and Roll. Their Winter Dance Party tour played to screaming crowds at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959.
The tour was having problems, not musically but logistically. The tour venues were too far apart and the bands were stuck in old buses for far too long, so long that it was affecting their set up times and performances. The weather was freezing and one of the tour buses lacked heat. Several band members were sick. Before the show at the Sun Ballroom, Holly decided to charter a plane for him and his band, the Crickets, to get to their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. The manager of the ballroom contracted Dwyer Flying Service to fly them to Fargo, North Dakota, a short drive from Moorhead.
After the show, Richardson, who had the flu asked Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, if he could have his seat, and Jennings graciously acquiesced. Valens asked Holly’s guitarist for his seat and they flipped a coin on it. Valens won. Dion was asked if he wanted the last seat on the plane, but the $36 price was exactly what his mother to rent his childhood apartment and he couldn’t “justify the indulgence”.
When Holly learned Jennings wasn’t taking the flight he joked, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings snarkily responded, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”.
The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.
In the snowy weather, the pilot had no stars to observe, no lights on the ground to judge his position and he couldn’t even see the horizon. He flew straight into the ground and the plane cartwheeled across a field in Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors.
The Golden Age of Rock and Roll was over.
The Music died in an Iowa cornfield.
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